Whenever people talk about caffeine, they almost always relate it back to coffee. If you do a quick search to find out how much caffeine is in your morning java, chances are you'll find a concrete answer pretty quick. But what if you prefer a nice cup of tea over a steaming cup of joe? Does tea have caffeine, and if so, how much? There are so many different types of tea; does that make a difference? What about tea bags vs. loose leaf tea? The world of tea is an adventure in and of itself. Let's dive in and take a look at popular varieties of tea and how all kinds of circumstances affect how much caffeine winds up in your cup.
A Quick History of Tea
Tea has a long, long history. It originated in China and became popular with the general public around the time of the Tang dynasty, back around 618 A.D. It was introduced to Europe sometime during the 16th century and did not gain its popular place as England's favorite hot beverage until the 17th century. Tea has long been used in both spiritual rituals and also for its medicinal purposes and health benefits. Despite all the different varieties available on the shelves of your local supermarket, there are only two different types of tea - true teas and herbal teas.
Herbal teas are not tea at all, but tisanes. Tisanes are infusions made from any plant that is not the Camellia Sinensis. Certain tea circles are moving away from the term "herbal tea" in favor of botanical or infusion. Tisanes have been enjoyed almost as long as true teas have, and are classified into different categories. Leaf tisanes include lemon mint and french verbena, while Flower tisanes include rose, chamomile, and lavender. Bark tisanes such as cinnamon and black cherry are popular, and Fruit tisanes such as raspberry, blueberry, and apple are always a favorite. All tisanes are naturally caffeine-free.
True teas, on the other hand, all come from the Camellia Sinensis plant. All types of tea - black, green, white, and oolong come from this tea plant. The Camellia Sinensis is an evergreen that thrives in many different climates, creating different flavors to every unique brew. All tea that is made from the tea plant contains caffeine. How much depends on many factors that we'll discuss later on in this article.
How Does All That Tea Come From One Plant?
If all tea comes from the same plant, how do you account for the vast difference between, say, black tea and green tea? Or the delicious flavor of a robust oolong over the delicate taste of a crisp green tea? It's all about oxidation. Oxidation is the natural fermentation process that alters the color and flavor of tea leaves. When the tea leaves are harvested, they are rolled either by hand or more likely these days, by a machine. This creates small cracks in the leaves that allow oxygen to react with the leave's natural enzymes. The more fully the leaves are oxidized, the darker the color. Black tea leaves are fully oxidized while oolong is only partially oxidized, leading to its signature red color. Green and white teas are not oxidized at all but rather allowed to dry after harvesting, either naturally by the sun or by pan firing. Oxidized teas like black tea will have stronger flavors and darker colors, while green and white teas are more delicate and are green or pale yellow.
The Myth of Caffeine And Tea
There are a lot of assumptions made regarding the amount of caffeine in tea that is simply not true. For example, it is widely accepted that black tea contains the most caffeine and white tea contains the least (if any at all). The truth is that the amount of caffeine in your tea has more to do with how it's brewed and the types of leaves rather than the variety of tea. It is entirely possible to brew white tea leaves in such a way as to create a drink with more caffeine than black tea. So what factors influence the amount of caffeine in a cup of tea?
How It's Brewed
How you brew your tea will affect the caffeine level of your beverage. Steeping tea in higher temperature water releases more caffeine than if you use a more moderate temperature. If you choose to use more tea leaves, that will also increase the level of caffeine. It is also true that the longer you steep tea leaves, the more caffeine that is released. There is a popular myth that you can decaffeinate your tea by steeping it for 30 seconds, pouring it out, and then continue to steep your tea for a decaffeinated cup. This was proven false by a study done by Hicks et al published in 1996 in Food Research International. They discovered that only 9% of the caffeine present in tea leaves was released in the first 30 seconds of steeping.
Condition of the Leaves
When you brew tea, you are infusing the leave's nutrients and flavors into the water you are steeping them in. Tea is graded based on how intact the leaves are. Fully intact leaves are graded much higher than broken tea leaves, which are often used in tea bags. In general, broken tea leaves impart more caffeine into your drink than leaves that are whole.
Tea leaves that are rolled or twisted also release caffeine much more slowly than flat, open leaves. Many types of oolong teas are presented in "pearls", where the leaves are twisted and formed into small balls. Because these release their caffeine more slowly, a cup of tea made from a twisted tea may result in a lower dose of caffeine per cup.
Matcha green tea is incredibly high in caffeine, coming close to matching a cup of coffee. This is because it is a powdered tea, which means you are ingesting the entire leaf, not just an infusion of that leaf. On top of that, most matcha tea is shade-grown, which also increases the amount of caffeine in the leaf due to a shift in chlorophyll within the plant.
The Ratio of Tips and Stems
The younger a tea leaf is the more caffeine that leaf will contain. That is why many white teas are known to have a high amount of antioxidants and nutrients - they are made from tea tips, or buds, which are newly formed leaves on the tea plant. There are lesser-known teas, such as Hojicha and Kukicha that are made from stems, which are naturally lower in caffeine.
Drink True Tea to Get Your Caffeine Boost
If you are looking for a boost of caffeine, make sure you're drinking a true tea made from the leaves of a tea plant. Don't be afraid to experiment with your brewing method, water temperature, and varieties as well. The flavor of the tea is dependent on many different factors, and surprises await you in every cup. There's a reason people have been enjoying this most favorite of beverages for centuries.